Slow Cooker Week – Day 1, Sweet Potato & Beef Stew

It’s time for another theme week at DinnerCakes! From time to time we like to devote a week to a particular style or genre of cooking, a holiday or anything really that strikes our fancy. Past theme weeks include Rainbow Week, Halloween Week and Smoothie Week. Welcome to Slow Cooker (ie Crockpot) week!


When I say slow cooker, do visions of fatty, salty stews pop into your head? Slow cooker meals can be unhealthy when all you’re doing is opening a bunch of canned food into the pot and letting it simmer. Canned food contains a great deal of sodium, which is great to keep it fresher in the can… but not so great for your heart, blood pressure, etc.


So the trick is to use fresh ingredients when possible (watch the canned food), add spices and seasonings liberally (but create your own flavors instead of relying on flavor packets and premade seasonings) and get creative!


I’m starting out the week with the cliched beef stew, but I jazzed it up a little bit. Instead of adding russet potatoes, I used two sweet potatoes that I had in the kitchen, emphasizing the savory and sweet flavors of a stew. I also relied more on veggies than beef, using only a handful of leftover cubed beef that I had from my fondue experiment. Lastly, I didn’t measure any seasonings that I added to the pot. I’m sorry, Julia Childs, but slow cooker meals simmer for hours in the added spices, and I think trying to be too precise about measuring it would lead to a bland stew. Trust your own hand!


Though I was grumbling while preparing the ingredients in the morning, it’s so nice to be able to just walk over to the slow cooker and spoon out dinner in the evening!


Savory Beef & Sweet Potato Stew

Approx. one pound of beef stew meat, cubed
Approx. 1/2 cup flour (for dusting the beef)
2 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and diced
Approx. 5 whole carrots, peeled and diced
Approx. 4 whole celery hearts, diced
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 cup frozen peas
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
32 oz. low sodium beef broth
salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder (for sprinkling on beef)
salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, celery seed, paprika, thyme (to taste)

In the morning, prepare ingredients – season beef, cut carrots, celery, onion, potatoes, etc. Add vegetables to the bottom of the slow cooker.

Dredge beef cubes in flour. Heat a skillet on medium heat. Add cooking spray or a small amount of oil and lightly brown beef, then add to slow cooker. Add a small amount of beef broth to the pan and add onions. Saute until lightly browned, then add onions and deglazed beef broth to the slow cooker. Add all remaining ingredients and beef broth to the slow cooker. Toss to combine ingredients and spices.

Cook on low approximately 6-8 hours. If stew needs additional thickening, add more flour or cornstarch and stir. If this is the first time you’ve used your crock pot, try to monitor the cook time as cookers vary in temperature (mine tends to be on the hot side).

E. Coli Still A Valid Concern?

Came across this article from the Consumerist (which in turn summarizes a New York Times article) about the ever present risk of E. Coli in US meats.  It talks about some of the cost-cutting measures taken by companies in the food industry, which includes using a variety of different sources for their meat and under-the-table dealings.

Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.

Really disturbing stuff.  Costco is applauded, however for their high standard and dilgent meat testing.  Definitely something to chew on (pun intended).  Makes me appreciate my flexitarian ways!

Making a Local Burger

Good morning!

First off, I’d just like to draw your attention again to our new “Favorites” page, found in the navigation bar at the top of the blog, just under the logo. We’re hoping this comes in handy on nights when you just don’t know what to make for dinner or what to bring to the office the next day for treat. As always, always feel free to let us know what you think and how we can make DC easier for you to use!


Now, if you follow our tweets, then you may have seen me mention that on Saturday I went to a really neat gourmet store/cafe in Charlottesville called Feast! Almost all the food is local. Feast’s mission connects “local farmers, artisan food producers and consumers by specifically sourcing and endorsing hand-made, local and seasonal foods that sustain the viability of farmland and family-owned food businesses.”


So Morgan and I allowed ourselves to indulge a little, and we bought some basil pesto, fancy cheese, & apples. This week I’ll be experimenting with using that cheese, called Red Dragon. Red Dragon is a creamy cheddar made from cow’s milk, containing Welsh brown ale and brown mustard seeds. There’s a bit of horseradish flavor to it; it’s definitely spicy with some good bite (read more about it here, here or here).


I’ve praised Ray’s Hell Burger in Northern Virginia here before – and what makes them stand out is the amazing quality of their ingredients. A burger is a simple thing, but quality beef, unique cheeses and a “just right” bun really makes a difference. Morgan and I used a few slices of the Red Dragon cheese we bought, as well as a pound of local ground chuck. The result was amazing.


We try not to be big beef eaters, so we figure if you’re going to make a burger, you may as well make it the best burger. I cut up some green pepper and onion, also bought at the farmer’s market – keeping with our local theme, and threw them into the patties. Check out some of your local markets soon, and get ready to taste an amazing burger!


Making a Local Burger

1 pound local ground chuck
1 medium-small farmer’s market green pepper
1 medium-small farmer’s market yellow onion
small block of local cheese (something with bite, like Red Dragon)
6 hamburger buns (gasp, we didn’t go local here!)
1 egg, beaten
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
1 teaspoon Nature’s Seasoning
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
dash paprika

Heat a grill pan on medium heat (we don’t have an actual grill, so if you do – go for it!). Dice green pepper and onion and set aside. Add ground chuck to a medium size bowl and combine green pepper, onion, egg and spices. Mix thoroughly with hands. When spices are fully incorporated, form into 6 medium size patties.

Add a small amount of oil to the grill pan and add patties two at a time, cooking for 4-5 minutes on each side (8-10 minutes total), until desired doneness is reached. Enjoy!

Lasagna Skillet, aka Lasagna "Giant Pot"

Like the English Muffin Pizzas I posted at the end of last month, this recipe is also from that stage where Morgan and I were trying to clean out our kitchen before moving.


And while we’re on the subject of moving – yes, we are all moved in to our new place in Charlottesville and it’s gorgeous here. Unfortunately we’re not all unpacked yet, but we’re getting there (slowly). The kitchen is finally done, and I’m looking forward to jumping back into the DinnerCakes saddle!


Back to today’s post, we had some beef that had been in the freezer for awhile, lasagna noodles in the far reaches of the cabinet and a stray zucchini to use. Morgan loves, loves, loves lasagna, but we never make it because of the fat content plus time commitment. But like I said, we were moving within the week so everything had to go!


A long time ago I remembered making something called “lasagna skillet,” a less elegant version of lasagna where the noodles are broken up into fourths and everything is cooked together in a skillet. I decided to make something similar, but because of the massive amounts of ingredients (yep, if you’re cooking for two like me you will have leftovers – but they’re delicious leftovers!) I couldn’t fit everything in a large skillet so I used a large spaghetti pot. It would be even more inelegant to call this dish lasagna “giant pot,” so let’s just stick with lasagna skillet.

This dinner really surpassed my expectations and we both enjoyed it very much. It came in handy for both lunches and dinners the next few days, and the leftovers are great either cold or warmed up. Enjoy!


Lasagna “Skillet”
inspired by Betty Crocker

a double batch of mom’s marinara sauce (double the recipe from the link, or use one jar of store bought sauce)

1 lb ground beef
1 onion, diced
1 zucchini, skinned and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
16 oz package lasagna noodles
4 cups water
1/2 cup part skim ricotta
mozzarella cheese, to sprinkle

Stir together beef, onion, zucchini and garlic in skillet over medium-high heat, about 5-6 minutes, until beef is brown; drain.

Add ingredients to large pot and stir in water, sauce and lasagna noodles, quartered. Bring to a boil, folding the mixture over the stiff pasta, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for approximately 20 minutes, until noodles are cooked (Note: It will seem like a lot of water, but it gets absorbed as it cooks). Add ricotta when noodles are almost completely cooked. Sprinkle with mozzarella before serving.

Stuffed Shells with Beef, Shedding New Light on a Old Classic

Unlike Edwin, I am not a flexitarian. However, my husband Morgan and I try to limit ourselves to lean meats such as chicken or fish. We rarely eat a strictly vegetarian dinner and once every few months, we break down and cook with beef.

Stuffed Shells filling with spinach

I was inspired by a recipe I found on – these stuffed shells are a little different than the kind you might typically find. Aside from the addition of beef, the blogchef recipe replaces ricotta cheese with mozzarella. It also removes the usual spinach and adds dry red wine.

Stuffed Shells Ready to Go in the Oven

But because I’m not a flexitarian, I need to get my vegetables wherever I can. I added half a bag of fresh spinach leaves, more garlic, and a can of Hunt’s diced tomatoes with green peppers, onions, and celery. I also left out the red wine and parsley.

This recipe isn’t very difficult, but stuffing the shells gets a little time consuming. It’s very filling and makes an enjoyable and attractive winter meal for both the holidays as well as the weekly dinner rotation!

Stuffed Shells

Stuffed Shells with Beef
inspired by

1 lb ground beef
1 large onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 (8oz) bag shredded mozzarella cheese (fresh is always better, if you don’t mind grating)
1 bag fresh spinach leaves
½ cup Italian breadcrumbs
1 egg (beaten)
1 (26 oz) jar of spaghetti sauce (I use Paul Newman sauces)
1 (15 oz) can Hunt’s diced tomatoes with green peppers, celery and onion
Grated parmesan cheese, as desired
24 jumbo pasta shells (cooked according to package directions and drained)
salt and pepper, to taste

Cook shells according to package directions. In a large skillet, brown ground beef, garlic and onion. Drain off excess grease (if you really want to cut down on even more fat, you can actually quickly rinse the ground beef, but you risk losing flavor). Preheat oven to 400 F.

In a large bowl, combine meat, shredded mozzarella, beaten egg, breadcrumbs, fresh spinach leaves, salt and pepper.

In a 13×9 inch oven safe dish, add half the spaghetti sauce and half the canned diced tomatoes.

Stuff the cooked and drained shells with the meat/cheese/spinach mixture and place on top of the sauce in the oven safe dish. Pour the remaining spaghetti sauce and diced tomatoes over the stuffed shells. Sprinkle with parmesan as desired.

Bake for 20-25 minutes and serve.